I first fell in love in high school. I’ll call him J. There were crushes, of course. I was sure I was in love with S, also in high school, swooning to Stevie Wonder’s I Believe When I Fall In Love, and fantasizing about our glorious future. I was a teenager and had it bad. But I was not in love with anybody else before J. As I pined over others, from middle school into high school, my first real love was there, as if waiting. Our love grew after a year of a developing friendship. He had an unabashed crush on me, but he also liked me, he wanted to know me, and we became friends. We were part of a small group of close friends, all of whom, thanks to social media, I still have in my life. He was always there, my friend, and loving me already before I knew I loved him.
Today, in reflecting on 17 years of marriage as I navigate divorce, I have only recently thought about love again. A movie subplot reminded me how it can feel. And it was not Hollywood schmaltz, it was falling in love, acceptance, and above all emotional vulnerability. I felt something.
I’m not divorced yet. I have emotional work to do before loving again, and I would like time alone to be a mom, remember my strengths, and to find my new path. But, I remember how it feels to be deeply loved, that I deserve love, and above all, can have it as who I am—all of me. I see now, that if I want it, I can love again. And, I can love in a way that doesn’t hurt or compromise who I am. I don’t expect Hollywood love nor do I aspire to that. I know better. I recognize that love builds and grows in stages. Lasting love needs feed and caring, it has stages, and is dynamic. Love, to me also starts with a few key ingredients, and I have J to thank for those memories today.
When I was still married, over a decade ago, J and I reconnected. He was married to someone else, I had two young children, he had one, we were both happy, but we reminisced about our love. He talked about his marriage and said something, a gift I will always treasure:
“You taught me how to love. I didn’t know how to love deeply until you, and it has helped my marriage. My wife thanks you, too.”
I was taken aback. Tears pooled in my eyes as I held the phone. He was not still in love with me, of course, but, how we’d loved and grown together informed his future relationships.
“Do you think it ever goes away?” he asked. I knew what he meant: would we ever not love each other on some level? At the time I was in love with my husband and my then life. I also knew that J and I did not want to be, nor would we ever be an adult couple, I whispered back, “No, it never does.”
I have been in intermittent contact with J, reconnecting on Facebook, and meeting up with him and others when in my hometown. I never felt I was betraying my then husband, or J’s wife. I’m not “in love” with him, but I see that we will always, on some level, love each other because we had a deep love, a strong friendship and, above all, complete mutual acceptance.
And… he was my first. J never tried to change me nor did he expect me to be someone I’m not. He loved me, and he always will despite the paths our lives have taken. We never see each other, he’s since divorced and remarried. I watched over social media and via mutual friends as he went through a dark time. And, I watched as he found a spectacular new life. He is blissfully in love with his new wife; I have not met her and likely will not. But I can tell he is where he is meant to be. He deserves to be loved for all of who he is, and his second marriage is giving him that.
Our love remains because of a few key ingredients. And I am holding those memories in my heart today. I will soon be single again. I’m not remotely close to loving again, but I remember how it feels. And I remember these three truths that I share with you now.
I know how to truly love. Some of this I learned as a mother, but I knew it with J. Yes, we were in high school and hadn’t a care in the world, no bills to pay, no colicky children taking our attention away from each other, but I know what it means to show someone real love and to not make it about me. Being a parent can teach that, if you parent from an adult place. With J, I cared deeply and showed him. His emotional needs were unique and I wanted to meet them. If he wanted a morning wake up phone call because that made him feel closer to me, I called him. Ultimately, I know I hurt him too. We were both young and had a lot of emotional maturing to do. But we knew how to love each other.
I can be myself. I grew up believing I was too much. Everything about me was too much. I was too angry and too big. I was outgoing and stood up for myself; I made waves. When I met J, and other friends in that same circle at a private alternative high school, I was appreciated for all of me. And I flourished. I started writing. I did performance poetry, I was happy, I spoke my mind. I shocked some. I made people laugh. I was allowed to be me, without criticism, or attempts to soften or stifle. I sang in a rock band, I chopped off all my hair, I wrote erotic poetry, I fought back against those who questioned my looks, my creativity and personality. But, I was also young and those negative messages were ingrained. Despite success academically and professionally, personally, I held on to those messages. And I ended up in relationships where, although men were initially attracted to all of me, eventually, I became too much. And I stifled myself. I’ll never do that again.
I recognize that memories of young love, or an emotional reaction to fictional love are no substitutes for the adult work it takes to be emotionally ready for love and to make love work. But, today, I am grateful to have my memories of J, and to be able to even watch a movie that has even a love sub-plot. In the five months since my husband left, I have been unable to watch anything, or even read a book with romantic theme. I have been feeling so much pain, that I have been afraid to let myself feel anything even tangentially related to being in love. It looks like I may be coming out of that, at least this week. It will take time, divorce is a loss. I have been hurt and betrayed. Yet, I see, again, that love is there, I know how to love, and most of all, that I deserve to be loved, for all of me.